There’s no denying that Ali Barter has become a powerful voice for both women in the music industry and for female creatives across all forums, but as I sit down to speak with the Melbourne-based artist it becomes apparent that while she recognises the role she plays in the conversation, hers is one of many perspectives. “I think there are so many female artists doing this at the moment, it’s just fun to be a part of it. There’s been call to action recently with this wave of feminism; I don’t see myself as anything different to anyone else,” she explains.
With her debut album A Suitable Girl, Barter perfectly balances her wry lyricism and vulnerable narratives – it is one of those great albums that delivers in collaboration and production. “I guess I wanted it to be a really honest and human story… People tell stories in much more abstract ways; mine’s not so abstract, it’s just how I’m feeling, stuff that I’m dealing with and coming to terms with,” she says humbly. “It was conscious. I wanted the songs to speak for themselves and in the production process that meant pulling back a lot… There are infinite ideas, you could put a million things on a song, but I wanted to be clearly based around my guitar playing and my words and my songs and my voice.”
Working alongside her husband – Holy Holy’s Oscar Dawson – as well as Bertie Blackman, Adalita and a slew of co-writers, A Suitable Girl speaks to defiance, loneliness and exposure. A story of challenging relationships with others and with herself, Barter showcases the cinematic and the accessible.
“It’s really inspiring, I think sometimes when you sit in your room and you play a song and you keep it all to yourself, that works for some people. But for me I wanted to open it out, and by sharing and collaborating really amazing things happen and I was exploring that… The best experiences I had collaborating were with songwriters… To sit down with another songwriter and we both have a guitar and we both have a conversation about the lyrics and build a story together, that’s just a magical moment.”
A point of interest to many is the album’s namesake – Vikram Seth’s acclaimed novel A Suitable Boy – traversing the meaning of femininity, love and independence, all themes which present themselves again and again in Barter’s work. Incredibly relatable in both aesthetic and intent, Barter speaks to how she envisioned the album to accompany her experiences and those of her audience. “It’s been in my house and in my life for a long time and I have read it and I have an audio book… I listen to it when I sleep I listen to it when I’m travelling and so I kind of know it off by heart, and when I was in LA a couple of years ago driving from one end of town to the other, going to meetings and songwriting sessions, I was listening to it and it just kind of popped into my head. It just seemed so right. It spoke to so many experiences of being a woman and making decisions and accepting yourself and you life and people around you and people’s expectations and that’s what this album was to me.”
I was curious to know what Barter would say to another young female musician by way of advice in navigating what can be a stressful and confusing industry; her response was as supportive and inclusive as one could imagine: “Just believe that you know what’s best for you,” she states. “I was speaking to a young musician recently and she was saying how she went on stage and before she played and set up her amp and her guitar and pedal and then the sound guy came and changed the way her amp was. And she was like ‘You know what? I put my amp that way for a reason, if it’s wrong I’ll figure that out.’ Making your decisions based on others’ decisions… Playing live solos with your pedals and guitar and working out what you think sounds good before you let somebody come in and take over. I would say just explore yourself and what you like because as soon as people start coming in and telling you what’s ‘right and what ‘sounds good’, you stop trusting yourself.
“The more that women go ‘I know how to do this and I’m going to do this in my way and if it’s wrong then I’m going to cop it on the chin.’ I’m going to learn what my process, is rather than going ‘How do you do this? How does this work?’ I have done that many times, but the more I do it the more I’m like ‘Do you know what? I do know how to do that!'”